Last month California Native’s founder and president, Lee Klein, flew to Vietnam to participate in ITE HCMC, the International Travel Expo in Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon), where he met with representatives from the many nations in the Southeast Asian tourist industry. Included in the conference were representatives from the government tourist boards, tour operators, and transportation companies in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Taiwan, Malaysia Indonesia and the Philippines.
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We appreciate it when our guests share their stories with us and allow us to post them on our blog. A few months ago, Gloria and Ned Krier, from Tucson, Arizona, traveled with us to Myanmar and reported this:
We recently returned home from our trip to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). The highlights included several days in the archaeological area of Bagan, visiting hundreds of old temples. We also enjoyed seeing numerous religious buildings, covered in gold leaf and jewels, containing many sculptures of Bhuddha. It was a thrill to walk along the streets of the fabled cities of Mandalay and Rangoon (now known as Yangon) and see the fascinating culture on Inle Lake.
We were pleased with the pace of the trip. Often we are scheduled for too much “rest” time and we were happy to be “on the go” almost all day. The hotels we stayed in were very nice. The location of the hotel in Bagan was so convenient to walk and discover temples on our own.
Our guide, Simon, was with us for 13 days and AK was with us for three days. They were both very professional and friendly. Simon was charming and always wrote down the names of the places we visited during each day. They both always arrived on time and even came early. The drivers were polite and drove well.
Thanks for organizing a great trip for us.
This month, President Obama will become the first U.S. President to visit Myanmar (Burma). This historic visit will focus even more attention on this Southeast Asian country and its efforts to rejoin the international community.
For the last eight years, The California Native has been conducting tours in Myanmar. We invite you to join us before too many tourists discover the beauty and serenity of this destination.
In Myanmar (Burma), one group of indigenous people that really stands out are the Padaung women of the Karen people, sometimes known as “long-neck” tribe.
At first glance, it looks as if the women are wearing gold rings to elongate their necks, but actually, this is not physically possible. The long neck is really a visual illusion. The women wear metal rings, whose weight pushes down their collarbones and upper ribs to such an angle that the collarbone actually appears to be a part of the neck, giving the illusion of an unnaturally long neck.
The most common explanation for this practice is that the look of an extra-long neck is a sign of great beauty and wealth, which will help attract a good husband. Some also say the opposite; that it is done to make the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders. Padaung mythology says the reason for the neck rings is to prevent tigers from biting them. It is also said that adultery is punished by removal of the rings. If the rings are removed after years of wearing them, the woman must spend the rest of her life lying down since the neck muscles will have been severely weakened by years of lack of support for the neck. Luckily, the instances of divorce and adultery in the Karen tribe are very low.
In Myanmar (Burma), the white elephant is highly respected as a symbol of power and prosperity and so it was only natural that a few months ago Myanmar’s government warmly welcomed two newly found white elephants. At the same time, the country was awarded chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for 2014, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit ended 50 years of political isolation from the West. Coincidence? The people in Myanmar don’t think so.
The elephant has for centuries been a symbol of Southeast Asian countries. Maharajas sent them to battle like living tanks, and workmen used them as bulldozers. The rare “white” elephant, though, holds a special place in the lore of these countries.
While other elephants worked hard, white elephants were cherished by kings, kept in palaces, cared for by senior officials, and worried over constantly. Possession of these sacred beasts was very important. A king who had many white elephants would reign for a long time and his kingdom would prosper. If his white elephants died, it was an omen of disaster for the kingdom.
Burmese kings would hunt for these special beasts, and would present them to each other as marks of diplomacy. Sometimes they fought over them, but they always took great care of them—their rule depended on it.
As elephants were used less and less in warfare, elephant hunts became less common, and fewer white elephants were discovered. In Siam (now Thailand), the King decreed that any white elephant found must be given to him and he offered rewards for their discovery. Each time a white elephant was found, it was cause for public celebration.
When King Mongkut of Siam heard that America had no elephants, he offered to send several to President Lincoln, thinking that if conditions were right they would multiply and Americans would be able to “tame and use them as beasts of burden, making them of benefit to the country.” The President replied that the American climate was probably unsuitable, and Americans preferred to use steam power, but he thanked the king for his gift of two magnificent tusks.
Brahman texts list attributes which must be met to qualify the animal as a true “white” elephant—pearl eyes (the animal is usually an albino), white hoofs, a back which hangs down like the bough of a banana tree, white hairs on the body and tail, and ears which are larger than a regular elephant’s.
Today, in Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Thailand, white elephants are pretty much nonexistent. In Myanmar, with the two new white elephants, the country now has at least five. They are considered sacred, and treated with the utmost respect and care. At certain times of the day, the public may view the elephants. No photos are allowed.
With its new found popularity, Myanmar is on its way to becoming a major tourist destination. Tourist numbers are going up and so are prices. Now is the time to visit this fascinating country while it is still pristine and take advantage of The California Native’s “White Elephant” Sale.
This June we are celebrating our 30th Anniversary—30 years of leading fantastic trips to exotic destinations around the world.
This anniversary comes as a proud moment for our company’s founder, Lee Klein, who continues to scout new locations world-wide in search of new destinations for the active traveler. Klein, who holds an MBA in Management and a BS in International Marketing, spent more than two decades as a corporate manager and college professor until, in 1983, while climbing Ayer’s Rock in the Australian Outback, he decided to drop out of the corporate world, take off his suit and tie, and create an adventure travel company based on the lessons he taught his students on how to succeed in business: “keep the quality high, keep it affordable, and treat people the way you would like to be treated.”
The initial offering from The California Native was a tour billed as “The Other Los Angeles.” This day-long excursion traced the route of the San Andreas Fault from the Mojave Desert to the San Gabriel Mountains without ever leaving Los Angeles County. The tours became so popular that colleges in three California counties offered them as part of their community-education programs. From this, the company expanded its offerings to include tours to the Channel Islands, Death Valley, Yosemite, and other uniquely California destinations, as well as white-water rafting, ballooning, spelunking (caving), sailplane gliding, and other outdoor adventures. “My family has lived in Los Angeles for generations,” writes Klein in the company newsletter, “hence the name The California Native.”
Satisfying the growing client base led to the development of The California Native’s most popular destination—Mexico’s Copper Canyon. These escorted and independent tours feature the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad (labeled as one of the most spectacular train rides in the western hemisphere) and highlight one of the most primitive indigenous cultures still subsisting in North America—the Tarahumara Indians. The California Native has become a leading source of information on this remote area and the company and it’s guides are known throughout the area for their work with the Tarahumara.
Today, The California Native offers a wide selection of tours to destinations including Costa Rica, Yucatan, Patagonia, Peru, the Galapagos, Ireland, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China, and more destinations are in the planning stages.
The recent reforms by the government of Myanmar, and the United States’ and Europe’s loosening of sanctions against this Southeast Asian country, formerly known as Burma, has portrayed the reclusive country in a more favorable light. The California Native has been conducting tours of Myanmar for the last eight years and we see this awareness in the large increase in the number of our guests traveling with us to this exotic destination.
Myanmar has so much to offer the traveler. From the splendor of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda to the thousands of ancient temples in Bagan and the unique “Leg rowers” of Inle Lake, the friendly people and fantastic photo-ops make Myanmar a destination well worth visiting.
|“On the Road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’ fishes play, An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ’crost the bay.” – Rudyard Kipling
In 1892 Rudyard Kipling published Barrack Room Ballads, a collection of poems about the life of British soldiers stationed in colonial India. It included the poem “Mandalay,” in which a lovelorn soldier longs to return to Burma and his Burmese sweetheart. While the road to Mandalay may not necessarily lead to love, it does lead travelers to a fascinating experience of Myanmar’s culture and history.
The fabled city of Mandalay lies on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. The last capital of Myanmar before the British took over in 1886, it is second only to Yangon (Rangoon) in size and lies in the center of the country. It was founded by King Mindon in 1857 in an empty area that, according to prophecy, would be the location of a town that would come into existence on the 2,400th jubilee of Buddhism. To fulfill this prophecy, the king moved his capital from Amarapura, dismantling the wooden buildings and royal palaces and loading them onto carts and elephants to relocate them seven miles south to Mandalay.
The city gets its name from Mandalay Hill, which rises more than 700 feet above the Mandalay Fort. Visitors can climb up two covered stairways that wind up the hill, stopping at the shrines, stupas and monasteries along the way. Near the top is a standing Buddha image pointing to the place where the city would be built according to the prophecy. Once on top, visitors are rewarded with sweeping views of the plains, the Palace and the Shan mountains in the distance.
The road to Mandalay is a route studded with ancient cities, where cars share the road with ox carts and markets teem with life. Although most of the significant buildings in the ancient royal capital of Amarapura were moved to Mandalay, some interesting structures still remain. The most picturesque is U Bein’s Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, which stretches three-quarters of a mile across Taungthaman Lake. A stroll across the busy bridge is a great way to experience the local ambiance. At one end of the bridge is the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery, where thousands of young monks live and study in a strictly disciplined setting. Each day at 11 a.m. they may be observed eating their main meal in complete silence.
A few miles south down the road is the ancient city of Ava (Inwa), which was the capital of the northern kingdom for almost 400 years, succeeding the nearby city of Sagaing. Both of these cities boast a number of interesting pagodas and historic sites.
One of the most interesting of the ancient cities on the road to Mandalay is Mingun, where in 1790 King Bodawpaya decided he would build the world’s largest pagoda. Despite employing thousands of slaves and prisoners to build it, he died before it was completed. What remains is the massive brick base that stands over 50 meters high. Although damaged by an earthquake, it is possible to climb the ruins for a wonderful view. The king also had a gigantic bell cast—weighing 90 tons, it hangs nearby and is the largest ringing bell in the world.
There is much to see on the road to Mandalay, but unlike the poem, there are no flying fishes and, alas, China is not across the bay.
Please join us on one of our California Native Myanmar Adventures.
We appreciate it when our guests share their stories with us and allow us to post them on our blog for everyone to enjoy.
Earlier this month, Nancy King and Richard Keltner, from San Francisco, traveled with us on our 11-day Myanmar (Burma) Explorer Trip. Here are Nancy’s reflections on the trip and a few of her beautiful photos:
We loved it! It was an incredibly well organized trip from our arrival in Yangon to when we left 11 days later.
We had four guides and they could not have been more accommodating. They were educated, spoke excellent English and we had such good connection I found myself crying one time at parting (and we had no guide more than 2 -1/2 days). It is strange now in thinking I asked you about tipping because we wanted to give each a huge tip and did! And drivers couldn’t have been better as well, pulling over when I wanted a photo.
The resort you put us in on Inle Lake was fabulous. I even had our boat man take us to the Princess Hotel, which is where my sister had stayed. I wanted to check out the gift shop. To my delight, our motor boat was stopped on the entry to the Hotel and a [leg rower] jumped in our boat to quietly do his one-leg rowing the entire inlet to the hotel. I did not like the Princess Hotel nearly as well as Inle Resort [where we stayed].
Yangon was very hot and humid in January but all the other cities were quite comfortable. Plus the car was always air conditioned as were the places we stayed. We were upgraded to a suite at the Trader’s Hotel and that was especially nice with the full window view of the city.
The food was outstanding! Our guide ate with us and we let him order [for us] every time. Each guide handled it so smoothly.
We loved having the guide and driver all to ourselves. I like the opportunity to really build a relationship among us.
The excellent guides are important, as we spoke with others who had guides through someone else. They were such a strong part of our trip with our connections with them.
I’m deeply into our trip and reliving it as I process my photos and edit them and get them ready to put in my 71st photo album of our life.
I stroll across the railway bridge whistling “Colonel Bogie’s March.” Others on the bridge give me strange looks as if thinking “Who is this weird man?” But I feel good and my whistling is appropriate, for this is the famous “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Most of us first heard about the bridge through the 1957 film, based on Pierre Boulle’s French novel. Set in a World War II Japanese POW camp in Burma, it is a fictional account of a battle of wills between a harrassed Japanese camp commander and a doggedly-stubborn British colonel. The story climaxes when allied commandos blow up the bridge.
The true story is different. During the Second World War, the Japanese planned a railway from Bangkok to Rangoon to shorten the distance between Japan and Burma by 1,300 miles. The railway would cross some of the wettest and most inhospitable terrain in Southeast Asia and require the construction of 688 bridges, but they considered it critical to the war effort.
For labor they used 250,000 Asian forced-laborers, mostly Thai, and more than 60,000 Allied prisoners—30,000 British, 18,000 Dutch, 13,000 Australians, and 700 Americans. Estimated to take five or six years to build, the project, which began on September 16, 1942, was completed after only 16 months, and cost the lives of 16,000 POWs and 75,000 Asian workers. The deaths from cholera, beri beri, malaria, typhoid, exhaustion and malnourishment, earned the railroad the name, “The Death Railway.”
The Japanese actually constructed two parallel bridges across the River Kwai, just outside of the Thai town of Kanchanaburi—the first made entirely of wood, the second made of steel and concrete. The Allies destroyed both on February 13, 1945.
In the film the commandos detonated explosive charges fastened to the bridge’s supports. The real bridge was bombed. Failing to destroy the bridges with conventional bombs (some hitting POW camps) the American flyers brought in a new weapon, the AZON (Azimuth Only) bomb. The precursor of today’s “smart” bombs, it had a radio-controlled tail and ten times the accuracy of a conventional bomb.
After the war, engineers repaired the steel bridge over the River Kwai. It is still in use. Visitors to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, now walk across the bridge (the fortunate ones having the opportunity to witness me whistling the theme from the movie), and visit the Allied war cemetery and a museum run by Buddhist monks, featuring a reconstruction of a prisoner of war camp. The monks built the museum “not for the maintenance of hatred among human beings but to warn and teach us the lesson of how terrible war is.”
Bangkok, Thailand, is the cross roads of Southeast Asia. Most passengers traveling to our California Native destinations of Myanmar (Burma) and Bhutan stop in Bangkok before resuming their journeys, and it is well worth spending an additional day to visit Kanchanaburi with its memorials and famous bridge.
Colors set our mood and add an important dimension to our feelings and memories of the places we visit. I thought it might be fun to group some of the photos from our library of California Native images by their predominant colors. This first collection is based on the color yellow.
“How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun.“—Vincent Van Gogh
The delightful city of Izamal, located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is a magical town whose buildings are all painted yellow.
Built around the 6th century, the Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar (Burma). It’s gilded stupa looks down on the city of Yangon (Rangoon).
A young Tarahumara girl carries her little sister in a yellow shawl, in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
A smiling yellow buddha looks down at worshipers in one of the thousands of temples in Thailand.
Shining yellow light into the night sky, Buda Castle, in Budapest, Hungary, overlooks the Danube River.
The world is a fascinating collage of cultures, each with its own traditions, customs and history, which gives them a uniqueness and sets them apart from all of the others. But the more we travel the more we find that so many things are the same and we are more united by our similarities than divided by our differences. In our series, Images of the World, we group our similarities to enjoy them and appreciate their cultural differences.
The Street Musicians: No matter where you are in the world, everyone enjoys music, and entertainment provided by street musicians is universal.
In Iquitos, Peru, a musician plays huayno music, the traditional music of the Andes, on his mandolin.
A Tarahumara musician, in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, plays guitar for visitors.
In Sydney, Australia, a colorful street-musician entertains passers-by.
A street violinist plays on a Budapest bridge on the Danube River.
In Argentina, the tango is extremely popular, and in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, street music takes the form of tango dancing.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand, a street musician entertains at the annual flower festival.
A Street quartet plays classical music outside of the Prague Castle in the Czech Republic.
“Close your eyes and point in any direction,” our Burmese guide challenged, “When you open them, you will be pointing at a spire.” Sure enough, no matter which way we pointed there were hundreds of spires on the stupas and temples that spread across the almost treeless plain.
Located on forty square miles on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River, 300 miles north of Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar’s Bagan stands as one of the two most preeminent ancient religious sites in Southeast Asia along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
It was in Bagan that the Buddhist religion took hold in Myanmar, influencing the society, its art and architecture.
Historically, Bagan was formed from 19 villages at a time when the region was beginning a transition from its Hindu origins to the Buddhist beliefs that are still a major force today. Manuha, the king of Thaton, a Mon kingdom to the south of Bagan, sent a monk to convert King Anawrahta of Bamar (the origin of the name Burma) to the new religion. Once converted, King Anawrahta asked for a number of sacred scriptures to be brought to him. The monk was unsure of the king’s sincerity, so he refused the request. In response, King Anawrahta attacked and conquered Thaton in 1057 AD, and brought back to Bagan classic Buddhist scriptures, as well as artisans, craftsmen and architects.
Thus began the golden age of Bagan, highlighted by the building of thousands of pagodas. Over 13,000 of these religious structures were built. Two and a half centuries later, in 1287 AD, Bagan was conquered by Kublai Khan and began to decline.
For many years the region was considered to be inhabited by bandits and nats (spirits). Once the British came to the area in the 18th century, and ensured their safety, Burmese people began to move back to the region.
Over time, floods, earthquakes, vandals and nature have reduced the number of pagodas, but over 2,200 still stand today, many in very good condition. There is beautiful detail on the exteriors and interiors and exceptional murals.
A trip to Myanmar is a wonderful experience—super-friendly people, a cultural mix of British colonialism and Buddhist tradition, magnificent temples and beautiful landscapes, but the true splendor of the country begins at Bagan.
There they stand in a line, offerings of food and flowers covering their pedestals. These figures are called Nats, spirits of the wind, earth, rain and sky, and in Myanmar (formerly Burma) they are representations of people (and animals) who have died tragic deaths. Some are former royalty, territorial overlords or soldiers. One is a former Burmese King. Another is a buffalo, who is said to have raised a prince. The prince was found by some soldiers and returned to the palace, wherein the buffalo followed them and rammed through the palace gates to get to her stepchild before the guards killed her.
On Mt. Popa, the core of an ancient volcano often described as the Mt. Olympus of Myanmar, the thirty-seven “inside” Nats are honored in the most sacred Nat shrine in the country.
Around 1100 AD, King Anawratha, who had learned Buddhism from a missionary, united all the Burmese kingdoms then attempted to convert the people to Buddhism, outlawing the worship of Nats, but this act angered his subjects and they resisted his efforts. Finally, he decided to incorporate the Nats into the Buddhist religion and, declaring Buddha to be the greatest of the Nats, announced that there would be 37 official Nats, whose images he personally carried up to Mt. Popa. These are known as the “inside” Nats. Other Nats, who continue to be worshipped, are called “outside” Nats.
Mt. Popa rises straight up from the plain, with a staircase winding to the temple at the top. Along the way are colorful Nat shrines, and pilgrims come from all over the country to give their offerings and make peace with the flamboyantly dressed representations of the spirits. Alongside the stairways, shops sell all variety of exotic merchandise, including bear paws, while frolicking monkeys run up and down the stairs begging for handouts.
It is believed that Nats can cure illnesses, grant favors and predict the future as long as they are rewarded. Otherwise, they can cause a lot of trouble. The spirit of the Nat is believed to enter the physical statue as it is crafted.
Most Nats have regular festival days, when pilgrims come with offerings and ask for favors. Each Nat has foods he favors or dislikes. They all love color, so everyone dresses brightly at these festivals. When a family has a celebration, they may hold their own festival. The Nats have “spouses,” someone who has had a dream in which the Nat offers to marry them. A traditional marriage ceremony is carried out, then the “Natgadaw” presides over the festival. The spirit of the Nat possesses the “spouse,” who then acts out the life of the Nat, accompanied by cheering and hissing. The Nat’s favorite foods are served, and there is much music, dancing, clapping, loud singing and drinking (except in the case of a Nat who abhors alcohol!).
Myanmar society is very conservative, and many believe that these festivals allow people to temporarily abandon the extreme self-control that is the norm in everyday Burmese life.
The Summer/Fall 2009 edition of The California Native Newsletter is now in the mail. The newsletter, published by The California Native since 1984, has more than 10,000 readers (not counting those who download from the web). If you are not already a subscriber to this free newsletter you can signup now.
This issues feature stories include:
The desert markings, believed to have been made thousands of years ago, made little impression on occasional travelers who viewed them from ground level, but when they were spotted by aircraft in the 1930’s they caught the world’s attention. They have since been surveyed, mapped and studied. Only two questions remain—who made them, and why?
Costa Rica has long been a favorite destination for both the beginner and the experienced river runner. With ample annual rainfall, mountainous landscapes, and plenty of road-to-river access, the country prides itself on being a whitewater paradise.
Packing a pearl-handled revolver, a riding crop and three lovers, the Baroness Eloisa von Wagner Bosquet disembarked on the Island of Floreana, in 1932, and declared herself “Empress of the Galapagos.”
In 1880, Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, the last territorial governor of the District of Columbia, packed up his family and, in the remote village of Batopilas, at the bottom of Copper Canyon, developed one of the richest silver mining operations in the world.
Because the Olympics were hosted in Beijing, chances are that you learned more about China in 2008 than at any previous time. On the other end of the country, far from bustling Beijing is Yunnan Province—home to the largest variety of ethnic groups in China.
CALIFORNIA NATIVE ADVENTURES
The newsletter also includes schedules, prices and descriptions of California Native’s tours to Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Peru, the Galapagos, Patagonia, Costa Rica, Yucatan and Chiapas, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, Bhutan, Yunnan, China, and Ireland.
|Chauffeured by their parents, kids
patrol the streets with buckets and
water guns, soaking all in range.
While our year begins on January 1, in Southeast Asia the year begins on April 13. This is the first day of Songkran, also known as the “Water Festival” and the celebrations last for three days. Songkran celebrates the vernal equinox and is a favorite holiday in Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Cambodia.
It’s a time for fun, especially if you’re a kid, and in the villages and towns, people in pickup trucks slowly cruise the streets, their truck beds loaded with kids equipped with buckets of water and “Super Soaker” water guns. Water is constantly flying and everyone is wet, but nobody minds, since this is the hottest time of the year. In one city I watched the local kids and police fighting it out with squirt guns.
|Soaking wet California Native
founder, Lee Klein, pedals his
rickshaw back into the melee of
Songkran’s Water Festival.
During the time of Songkran, many community events and parades are held, both secular and religious, including the Miss Songkran beauty pageant. It also is a traditional time for family gatherings.
As a tourist, it is a wet but great time to visit.